Sir Brian Urquhart

Honorary degree recipient Sir Brian Urquhart
Doctor of Humane Letters

Born in England in 1919, Brian Urquhart was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. As an officer in Britain’s military intelligence service during World War II, Urquhart liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Moved by the horrors he saw there and the widespread destruction wrought by the war, he dedicated his life to developing human rights into an international rule. A career spanning five decades at the United Nations taught him that “if you hold on to your belief in reason and compassion despite all political maneuvering, your efforts may, in the end, produce results.”

Immediately following the war, Urquhart served as a personal assistant to Gladwyn Jebb, the executive secretary to the Preparatory Commission, which set up the United Nations in London, and then as personal assistant to the U.N.’s first secretary-general, Trygve Lie. From the 1950s through the early 1970s, Urquhart worked in a range of capacities under Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche and was centrally involved in the conferences on peaceful uses of atomic energy, the Congo crisis in the early 1960s—where he survived being kidnapped and badly beaten by rebels in Katanga—and peacekeeping in Cyprus, Kashmir and the Middle East. Urquhart was named the undersecretary-general for special political affairs in 1974 and held the post until his retirement in 1986, after which he spent a decade as a scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation.

Urquhart is the author of several books, including acclaimed biographies of Dag Hammarskjöld and Ralph Bunche and an autobiography, A Life in Peace and War. His works on decolonialization and reforming the U.N. system, including most recently A World in Need of Leadership: Tomorrow’s United Nations (with Erskine Childers), have placed him at the forefront of transnational politics.

Hear Sir Brian Urquhart speak on "Whose Century Is It?" on the multimedia page, Conversations with Honorary Degree Recipients.